Breakfast (Psst. It's a euphemism). Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
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Rule one of the Breakfast Club: there’s no place more embarrassing to see someone you know

Does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

And so to – well, how shall I describe the place where I am sitting? There are people with delicate sensibilities out there, some of whom write to me, more in sorrow than in anger, when I use a rude word in this column. I am not saying these people are unaware of or squeamish about the facts of life; in fact, I consider them the nation’s backbone, and probably the kind of people who can be relied on to make you a decent cup of tea when they offer you one.

So let us say ... let us say I am at a place called the Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club is the place you go to when, for example, a lady says she might like to have breakfast with you, but wants assurances over and above your word that you have not, by reason of having had breakfast with another lady at any previous point in your life, contracted anything she might catch, thus marring or putting a dampener on her having breakfast with either you or anyone else in the future. I am referring, of course, to unprotected breakfast.

One’s word in this matter is not enough. There is a character in The Archers – so crooked, as the sublime Nancy Banks-Smith describes him, that he could hide behind a spiral staircase – who has been accused by his ex-wife of fathering her child; he refuses to “play her twisted game” by having a DNA test. His current partner may be deluded enough to believe him but it is only a matter of time before she learns the error of her ways.

So, it is with a squeaky-clean conscience that I turn up to the Breakfast Club. I know where I have had my breakfasts and exactly whom with for many years now. But there is still a stigma attached to such places, the faint echo of sniggers at postwar cartoons from the more risqué magazines. I look about myself. I’ve been having the feeling, very strongly, all day long, that I am going to run into someone I know. I put this down mainly to the fact that I’ve been bustling about London on an errand for myself all afternoon, and that even though there are ten million sinners in the city, you’re more likely to meet one of the few you know on the Tube or some other public place than in the bedroom of your Hovel, eating Frazzles.

The waiting room is large and partitioned; but at one point a couple of us, sitting in one of the outlying regions, are asked to go back to the area just opposite the admissions and pre-check interview desks, “so we can see how many people are waiting”. Apparently a significant proportion of those who attend the Breakfast Club lose their nerve at some point and do a runner before they are called. Anyway, this move places me in an area in which seven or eight people are waiting in close proximity to each other; if you put a Monopoly board on the table in the middle we could all have a game together without anyone having to stretch.

Interestingly, although there are distinctly separate Male and Female waiting rooms once registration has been done, until then it would seem the NHS likes us all, men and women alike, to get chummy to begin with. All this while answering questions on a form that some might consider to be intrusive – but are, I concede, entirely relevant. Have I ever had anal breakfast? Golly. Have I ever had breakfast with a man? Well, at the university I was at, the only way you were going to have breakfast with a woman student was if you owned half of Devon or were already a woman, so . . . But does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

I try not to stare but, as Terence put it, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; also, it would appear that the women here are more attractive than average. “Hello, lovely,” says the admin clerk to one exceptionally attractive woman, loud enough for all to hear, and proceeds to chat her up. The best place? Opposite me is an aged Muslim man. I can tell he is Muslim because of the headgear, the beard, and the fact that his phone’s ringtone is a chanted verse from the Quran. When he gets up, he walks with a gait strongly suggestive of intense genital chafing.

I also notice, with a certain amount of pleasure, that I am by no means the oldest man there. “You see?” I feel like saying. “There’s life in us old dogs yet. There are still women out there who . . .” and while I’m looking at the back of a new arrival’s head, he turns and sees me and, with a big smile on his face, advances towards me, his hand outstretched in familiar greeting. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser